illustration of a three heads
18 December 2023

The medium is the message— Threads isn't a win for the Fediverse

Meta needs the Fediverse more than the Fediverse needs Meta. I say this in the sense that the Fediverse never needed Meta at all. In fact, the Threads / Mastodon interoperation is a net negative for "federated social media” and the "open web.” In the end, Meta will have fundamentally changed what those two terms mean. And the Mastodon collective will have fumbled what it needed most for mass appeal— continued validation of the influential adopter.

By allowing Threads to federate with the Fediverse, Mastodon has risked the very thing that made it appealing— open web federation. This claim may seem paradoxical, sure, but only as much as integrating with a closed system under uncertain terms. Twitter users who've perhaps already considered where to migrate must now reevaluate their choices. While some fedi-supporters feel the chips now fall in their favor, studied user behavior suggests a different outcome.

Meta was allowed to extract the marketing benefits of federated social media while discarding its ethos. If you ever encounter a 1920's French Situationist, ask them how movements die.

On Official Culture:

Official culture is the culture that receives social legitimation or institutional support in a given society. Official culture is usually identified with bourgeoisie culture. For revolutionary Guy Debord, official culture is a "rigged game", where conservative powers forbid subversive ideas to have direct access to the public discourse and where such ideas are integrated only after being trivialized, and sterilized.

(Summarization of The Situationist's manifesto: Report on the Construction of Situations by Guy Debord. Summary by Wikipedia.)

Where will Twitter users go? #

There’s a perception circulating the Fediverse that interoperating Threads with Mastodon lends credibility to ActivityPub’s mission for an open web. This clout will then, somehow, translate into more converted Mastodon users.

However, the opposite effect seems, at least, just as possible.

Kill Zone studies anti-trust behavior by big tech towards startups. It identifies early adopters, or “techies,” as playing a “crucial role in the success of an innovation.”

On early adopters and ordinary users:

Techies choose their favored platform mainly for its technical characteristics and have the incentive to uncover the underlying quality of each rival platform. The mass of early techie adopters, in turn, drives the adoption by ordinary non-techie customers for two reasons. First, the mass of techie adopters offers a signal about the fundamental quality improvement brought about by the new platform. Second, this mass creates a network externality for ordinary customers, who have to choose whether to adopt the new platform.

From Kill Zone, Sai Krishna Kamepalli, Raghuram G. Rajan, and Luigi Zingales, University of Chicago (2020)

The study reveals that novel technology attracts early adopters, “techies.” The “normies,” for lack of a better term, will watch what “techies” do before committing because moving costs are higher for non-technical users.

This behavior changes for both types of users when they believe a merger between the “entrant” and the “incumbent” is imminent[1]. “Techies” no longer perceive value in the entrant once its flagship offering debuts on the incumbent’s platform. Side note: that’s why Meta copies the features of small startups. But we’ll get to that in a later post. “Normie” users are less inclined to bear the cost of moving if it is unnecessary.

So, it is possible that for every Threads user who discovers Mastodon through Meta’s ActivityPub implementation and not through, say, Mastodon evangelists, the incentive for early adopters to make the switch decreases.

Twitter’s “normie” users are then more inclined to migrate to Threads because that’s where the early adopter signal is strongest. Upon closer inspection, these users may feel a familiarity that Mastodon cannot compete with. Threads’ steady flow of feature announcements will only entice the users further. For the remaining Twitter users, where associating with Meta is, as a matter of principle, a dealbreaker, Mastodon is no longer a viable option. Such users will search for something new where early adopter signaling and familiarity are strongest (my money is on BlueSky[2]).

In short, the very thing Mastodonians hope for— credibility through corporate interoperation— would sooner kill the platform than help it grow.

What the open web means to the average user #

Mark Zuckerberg wants, and has tried to achieve, a Meta-exclusive suite of interoperated apps. By intertwining Instagram, Threads, and Facebook, Zuckerberg makes it harder to break up his empire under anti-trust.

From Casey Newton’s Why WhatsApp and Instagram are just names now (2019):

If the Federal Trade Commission ever planned to compel Facebook to spin out WhatsApp and Instagram — a big if, I know — you can imagine the company explaining that there was no longer such a thing as “WhatsApp” or “Instagram.” Going forward, those names will refer only to their respective graphical user interfaces. Behind the curtain, there is only Facebook. It’s a characteristically savvy — and ruthless — move from Zuckerberg and his lieutenants.

Up until now, Meta (then Facebook) and its efforts to integrate its suite of messaging apps have been met with scrutiny from the EU and US regulators. Lucky for Zuck, though, Mastodon is the perfect cover. Adopting ActivityPub today, could help Meta thwart anti-trust or DMA laws down the road.

Along the way, Meta gets to signal an embrace of the open web, and gains the privilege of redefining the term for its billions of users. By the time Instagram, or a standalone Reels, joins the fedi-party, ActivityPub could look unrecognizable on Meta's side of the wall. Who's to say what protocol serves which interoperation? But we know how this ends. Meta is not now, nor has it ever been a bastion of a free and open internet. History won't gaze upon Big Tech with kind eyes, but only so long as they aren't the victors.

As sure as ActivityPub federates the open web today, a "MetaPub” would connect Zuckerberg's collection of walled gardens. And that's an invite-only platform your server will never receive a code for.

The medium is the message #

Regardless of what you think Meta’s intentions are, the company needs ActivityPub to meet its objectives. Zuck could never convince BlueSky to let him hop on the AT Protocol without public commitments. Dorsey is a jackass, but he’s not dumb. He knows when Meta knocks on the door, it's not to borrow an egg. It's a declaration of war.

Before Meta decided it needed ActivityPub, Mastodon had a hand it could play. Even if it wasn't a full house, it was something.

For folks who just lost their audience, Mastodon was an attractive option. It was the place you went if you wanted to keep your followers. For folks disenchanted by corporate media silos, Mastodon was a refuge. It was the place you went to get away from the big tech billionaires.

Put another way, Mastodon’s strong anti-corporate narrative resonated with people. It had a beloved open web protocol to back it up. All it had to do was nothing— bide its time, polish that iOS app, and wait for some of Twitter’s quarter billion users to come to you. But Mastodon and the greater fediverse lost what made it intriguing the moment it shook hands with Meta.

We are never obligated to extend the practice of our beliefs to bad-faith actors. In fact, we are obligated to protect the underpinnings that allow us to express those beliefs; doing so does not make us hypocrites, even if tech pundits who know better suggest otherwise.

You can't throw Che Guevara on an eighty-dollar tee shirt and hope the working conditions in which that shirt was produced improve. Just as you can't interoperate with a notoriously ruthless monopoly and hope its users embrace the open web.

The medium is the message. I’ll see you at the next post.

This is the first post of a series. You can read the next two posts Copy, Acquire, Kill— How Meta could pull off the most extraordinary pivot in tech history, and How do we stop Meta in 2024? We fix the information loop

Edit: Updated "Official Culture" source to include the direct work. Adjusted various formatting, fix grammatical errors, and restructure a couple sentence for better clarity.

Edit: Add more insight for the anti-trust section for better clarity

  1. I get it. Mastodon and Threads are not merging into a single platform or company. But this, to me, is the crux of the issue when I observe the discourse on Mastodon. So many of us are so hyper-focused on the technology, we overlook the practical matters of human behavior. And I don’t mean the type of humans who write a README doc for fun. I mean normal people (joking). Whether interoperation is technically a “merger” is irrelevant to the average user. In fact, the safest bet for a non-technical user who cannot follow documentation is to assume that Meta will use their user data for nefarious purposes. And to be fair, it absolutely will if presented with a sliver of opportunity. Very few of us foresaw what Facebook was doing when we all had like buttons on our blogs for a summer. It’s not impossible for Meta to find a way to monetize Mastodon’s user data. Even if that isn’t its primary objective. ↩︎

  2. I think Bluesky is set to take a surprising chunk of Twitter users, and I think Jack Dorsey knows it. When TwitterX experiences another mass exodus, Bluesky will open its doors after a comically long invite-only period. The announcement will dominate the news cycle as a companion piece to Twitter’s continued demise. To sweeten the pot, Jack will probably announce a new feature. If you forgot about Bluesky, that’s perhaps by design. It’s biding its time, waiting for someone to slip up. To be clear, I’m not a well-wisher. Dorsey is a fucking dork (derogatory). ↩︎


label name
Plot notebook
Type essay
Phase sorting
Tags ,
Assumed audience Fediverse